Category Archives: reflections

It’s not about you. Or is it?…

It’s been the longest day. So long that by the time you get home you can’t quite remember what mood you left the house with in the morning, what you had for lunch, or how the first lesson of the day went. No detail, no fine lines, just one big smear of the day. The smear caused by something that happened in class that looms dark and large. By the time I reached my front door tonight, I had complained, got frustrated, felt disrespected, poured my heart out, tweeted for help, got comforted, made action plans, blamed myself, found fault with students, realized where I’d done wrong, sulked, felt ashamed and sorry, chastised myself, and finally cried.

I am spent. It’s tough, but I know I need to write about this whirlwind here.

I’ll go backwards and start from the end. As I walked home and replayed the class in my mind over and over again, it hit me that I’d cooked my own bacon right there.

When students were chatting off-topic in class, I took it to mean they were not focused – but were they challenged enough to keep their focus on task? Did the task mean much to them? Did I myself believe in the task I was offering?

When students’ poses during group discussion time looked “too relaxed” to me and suggested indifference – did I consider that’s how those students are, in general, as people? Relaxed.

When their answers to my question “How was your discussion?” didn’t match my expectations, did I acknowledge their responses as viable at all? Did I give them a chance to be heard? Was I ready to hear them, whatever it was they had to say?

Was my view of a good discussion different from theirs, but I stubbornly insisted on mine?

Was I mean to them at any point? Was I patronizing?

Did I praise them at all in this class? Both those who seemed to care and worked hard, and those who didn’t *seem so*?

Could I possibly have imagined some of the attitude? Didn’t I succumb to the negative I saw/imagined, let it control me, and spend the rest of the lesson day with my vision blurred and judgement clouded?

 

The realization that hurt me the most was that I’d acted against my own beliefs (does that mean they are fake?…). Something I talk about with my colleagues a lot – that students are people first and foremost and people are different; that they made a choice to come to my class and that can be appreciated in itself; that they have a right to not enjoy this obligatory class; that we don’t know what’s happening in their lives outside of our class, which is exactly when their whole life is happening; that it’s me as a teacher – and hopefully a grown-up – who is in charge of making steps towards a positive environment.

I forgot to empathize. That’s what made me cry on my way home – and now as I’m typing this.

 

I know I can’t change my reactions, what’s done is done. Surely it was both of us, me and the students, but I know my ego blew it out of proportion. I got defensive, but I’m not sure what I was fighting for so fiercely mattered that much. In retrospect, I sincerely hope nobody other than me got hurt by the blow.

The response to my emotional message shared on Twitter and Facebook was overwhelming, both online and in real life. I’m thankful and amazed at how kind people are to me.

I will try to be that, too.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

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On the current state

Today I want to write here some of my current thoughts about professional development, the possibility of a burn-out, my place in this profession, the changes in my interests in the six years that I can trace back with the help of this blog, and importantly, my thoughts about future. As in, my professional future. Tomorrow morning all of this might make little sense to me but as of now, it stands. I might feel differently ten days from now when I go back to work and have to plan classes again, meet students, spend hours with colleagues, work on projects. But now, lost in vacation, knee-deep in idleness, I feel that.

It’s been a month since I last stepped foot in a classroom, and I’ve learnt by now that long vacations are not exactly a good fit for me. Nearly every time I lose sense of professional purpose, but this summer hit me a little bit harder (though frankly speaking, it has been creeping in for a while).

“What is IT?” you’ll probably ask.

As I scroll down my Facebook feed, I see (this summer much like any other time in the year), an abundance of good-looking and not-so-good-looking resources, useful and toxic articles, thoughtful and all different kinds of blog posts. There’s a lot of everything – and there has been for as long as I have used social media for ELT, which is 6 years.

Yet barely anything clicks now quite the same way as it used to.

I am not drawn to webinars.

I am not willing to participate in Twitter conversations.

I don’t have the energy to look at my WordPress Reader.

You most likely don’t see my comments to any of the ELT discussions on Facebook.

You have not yet received my response to your kind, long and thoughtful comment on my blog post.

 

Burn-out?

I want to look six years back into the logs. Here’s what I’ve been massively excited about for something like 4-5 years: activities, professional communities aka PLNs, technology (apps, web tools, blogs, social media), sharing students’ work, etc. I am far less thrilled about most of those now. I sometimes even catch myself sounding skeptical, and I don’t want to become that person. I used to be so passionate about so many things. These days, I choose and pick, examine carefully what to be passionate about. And then become mildly enthusiastic. I have more criticism in me than I’d prefer. I don’t use as many exclamation marks when I write. One could take it to mean I’ve lost some vigour, if one were to analyse that much.

And, of course, conferences. I couldn’t get enough of them. I wanted so much to be everywhere, to meet everyone, to present and share what I’d done as a teacher. The kind comments, positive response of the audience, presence of those who’d become friends – it got me high and dizzy every single time. Together we make each other feel important. So much support, so much learning, and above all, our relationships growing deeper. We became each others’ stars.

Does it sound like I’m saying I don’t value any of that anymore?

That’s not what I’m saying.

I can’t seem to find my place, that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to be the kind of presenter who shares own experiences in the self-centered way. When I go to a conference, I look to see who will be there. And then aren’t we trapped in this cycle of doing it for the same people over and over again? I don’t think I want to share for the mere sake of sharing anymore. I don’t always understand what and who the conferences are for, my view is blurred.

I wrote before that I want to participate in programs to “help teachers” in developing countries. I still do, but there’s this nagging voice at the back of my mind offering me a vague picture of what it might look like… me performing a role, albeit excitedly. Imparting whatever knowledge or skills or ideas I come up with when I write my abstracts to go. How can a short visit with a couple of workshops help anyone? Do I want to be a person associated with this kind of help? On the other hand, though, what’s wrong with it? Having never been part of it, why am I already doubting the impact?

That’s a rough sketch of where my mind is. Of the current state.

 

My own diagnosis is as follows: a time-out at the crossroads. Re-evaluating the purpose and meaning, locating professional self, contemplating directions.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Semester reflection July 2017

Tuesday July 18th was a great Tuesday.

I owed my good (actually hyper) feeling to an exhilarating hailstorm in Tokyo, my sweet students who gave me the first shikishi thank-you card in my life and made me feel special, AND the best attended RP Tokyo meeting in history – 10 teachers sacrificed their Tuesday night in order to meet other teachers and talk about teaching. When I phrase what happened like that, I can’t help but feel deep appreciation – and fascination, too! I know there are other ways to spend a nice summer evening in Tokyo. I’m grateful people made the choice they made.

We’ll have to put hailstorms, however exciting, aside as this post is about the RP meeting of that day. It was different in a few ways. First of all, we hadn’t had so many teachers in a meeting before. Secondly, we hadn’t had four new members join at any one time before. And finally, we hadn’t structured our reflection in a way like that before. So I have to admit to having been slightly nervous… but maybe it went well (thanks to Bill Snyder and everyone else for being positive and supportive).

And now I’ll tell you what it was we did that got me so excited.

Here’s what happened:

IMG_7496   —>   IMG_7497

Background: A few weeks ago I attended a 5-minute webinar by Sarietjie Musgrave aka @sarietjiem, in which she described a reflection tool she uses with her students in South Africa when they finish certain projects. The idea behind it is that every finger of a hand is used symbolically to pose a question for guided reflection. The original questions that Sarietjie provided were as follows:

  • What worked well for you in this project? (the Thumb question)
  • How can you apply the skills/ information you got in real life? (the Index Finger question)
  • What caused frustration? (the angry Middle Finger question)
  • What made you feel passionate while working on this project? (the Ring Finger question)
  • What made you feel vulnerable? (the Little Finger question)

 

The idea immediately looked so appealing to me that the following week I tried it out with my students, playing with the questions a little to match them to the course the students had just finished. At the same time, I thought it could be interesting (and fitting) for our last Reflective Practice meeting of the term, which had been planned to focus on our achievements and progress made in the four months since the beginning of this academic year.

Procedure: I brought the empty hand template to the meeting and we worked in small groups coming up with our own questions for each finger that we would later answer while reflecting on the term. After that, there were 10 minutes of silent individual writing time (a moment I truly value both in our meetings and classroom scenarios). Finally, we spent the rest of the time discussing our reflections in small groups, asking each other questions to find out more and understand each other better. In the last 15-20 minutes of the meeting in a whole group discussion we shared our thoughts on this way of reflecting and wrapped up the meeting with thanks and farewells and such. Among the thoughts that other teachers expressed while reflecting on reflection were the following ideas that spoke to me:

(1) It was through talking about the experiences lived by us during the term that we could make a better sense of things and events, and also see the interconnectedness of these experiences. I guess holistic could be a suitable word to describe this method of reflection that we used.

(2) We often offer ready-made reflection questions to our students (e.g. how was today’s class? what did you enjoy? what did you learn? how do you do your homework? etc). But the experience of us writing our own questions could very well be transferred to the ways we do it in class – let students come up with the reflection questions they’d like to answer. See where it takes us.

Maybe here’s where the possibly useful part of the blog post finishes and the self-indulgent one begins. I’d like to capture the spring term of 2017 reflection for myself, so here go my answers as they happened during the meeting.

*****

The Thumb, or “Highlights of this semester”

1) Without any doubt, co-organizing ExcitELT conference in Tokyo was the biggest highlight! That sounds like it could be enough but I made a choice to also present at PanSIG conference in Akita two weeks prior to that and at Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe a week after ExcitELT. Five presentations on four different topics within three weeks – so far I haven’t had any experience to top that.

2) At the PanSIG conference in Akita something special happened. I found out there is a SIG that I had just been looking for, THT SIG – Teachers Helping Teachers. In short, teachers volunteer their time and money to go to developing countries and give workshops, presentations, or other forms of support for teacher communities there. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me as after traveling to Cambodia earlier this year I have thought about volunteering as a teacher a lot. Finding the THT SIG seems to be just what I needed. Onwards.

3) After “complaining” about rapport with students in my previous blog posts (that link, and also here and here), finally I feel like this term I’ve managed to establish a deeper connection with my students. The simple answer seems to have been in giving it time, giving me time to adjust to the system. With more control over my lesson plan and my performance within the unified curriculum, also came flexibility. And a comforting feeling that I can afford being me in my class once again.

The Index Finger, or “What did I learn that I can share with others? What did I learn that can help me to move forward?”

1) I would love to keep working on “spreading the love” for reflective practice, the way I know it to be, in the ways I can do it – blogging, organizing and advertizing our group meetings, writing articles, presenting more at conferences, possibly at future workshops that I could volunteer to do as part of THT SIG programs in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, etc…

2) I would love to share the experience of what organizing a conference can be and how to go about doing it in my university in particular. That’s a possible blog post.

3) I would like to read – and practice – more about how to become a better communicator. Among other things, I’m terrible at managing conflicts, in fact, I’m terrible at experiencing conflicts myself. I think I’m grown up enough now to work on that.

The Middle Finger, or “Frustrations, disappointments, anger, and negativity of this semester”

Swept up in the hassle of May-June conference-related and other busyness, I got so grumpy and stressed that I often did not communicate with the people around me… well. Felt no energy to invest into that communication, into understanding others and being patient, into looking for a common language. It wasn’t good for my system and only added to the already existing stress.

The Ring Finger, or “Connections”

This semester I was as social as I hadn’t been in a long while, definitely not since I moved to Japan. That resulted in renewing old connections and building stronger bonds, forming new connections with colleagues in my workplace as well as with new members of the RP group. I sent a hundred emails and networked meaningfully at conferences. With the information about THT SIG, a whole new vision has opened up, with a view into possible connections outside of what my current teaching and working zone is. Connections that could be a bridge into my next step – teaching in other countries in Asia. Feels like the door has opened a crack.

The Little Finger, or “When did I feel vulnerable?”

Quite a few times during the term I felt vulnerable and uncertain in class with student A. An exceptionally fluent – and overfluent! – student who has lived and studied abroad for many years, student A. was swearing in class, unknowingly dominating discussions, and yet all that with the best of intentions as I later found out. How did I deal with it? Talking and being honest helps. Helped. 🙂

Added in the palm of the hand – “Achievements that I am proud of”

I believe I am somewhat proud of, even if exhausted by the end of it, being a part of ExcitELT this year. It was an experience I hadn’t had before and one that taught me a lot – about conferences, about people, about myself.

Another source of pride would  be our RP group success! New members, the interest, the buzz *that I’m feeling**… More than ever before I hope that other group members will step up to become facilitators and share what they believe is worth reflecting on, as well as how else it can be done.

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In a discussion a few days ago I complained with an earnest feeling of frustration in my tone that I think I have a problem. My problem is my stubbornness. The fact is, I appear all too ready to be reflective, only if that’s going to be MY way of reflecting, something I understand, something that speaks to MY style. I know it limits my development – and worst of all, I feel like such a hypocrite. Thus, I’d like to end here with yet another quote that takes its roots in the Buddhist teachings.

When we hold too firmly to our beliefs, we risk being blind to reality and seeing only what conforms to our beliefs.

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

 

Thank you for reading.

 

Questions for discussion kind of post.

Today’s blog post is not a typical post. It’s not even a paragraph-blogging kind of post. Rather it’s an invitation to discuss some questions that are on my mind today, so much that I can’t handle thinking of them alone. 

If you have something to say, I’d love to read your opinion in the comments below.

*****

Topic: A teacher’s responsibility for students’ successful performance.

Questions:

1. How responsible are teachers for students’ successful performance of the target language they teach?

2. When do you know/feel you’ve done everything in your power to help students use the language?

3. How much control do/should teachers have over students’ ability to produce the desired output? 

4. In the case of a rigid, institution-imposed assessment system, what should govern us more, our own beliefs about what “successful performance” means – or the institution’s idea?

5. What do you do when you realize/assume students’ (under)performance may be affected by your plan or your skills as a teacher?

6. In the case of #5, would you want help from others or would you prefer to deal with the issues alone? (only you know your students..). Would you want to talk about it? If so, how?…
*****

I wonder what you think, and of course understand that every teaching context is different. Your answers would enrich my understanding of these questions, whatever context they’d be coming from. Food for thought!…

Thank you for reading.

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Examining listening habits

I have to break it to you: our monthly Reflective Practice Tokyo group meetings are great. While the two-hour sessions are normally planned, with the expected flow of discussions and activities outlined in my notes, I just never know what will happen. From my observations, it is 84% about the people who attend and 16% about the topic (random percentage, obviously). Most of the times we only do 1 point from my original plan, and while a year ago, at the group’s onset, I did not always take this fact well but rather as a flaw in either my preparation or facilitation, I’ve grown a lot more relaxed about it. I have a feeling other RP groups might be doing things differently. Some day we’ll try a different way, too (oh this reminds me – I wish there were a way to connect different RP groups functioning around, to share the ways of holding meetings, notes, topics, maybe even record some of our meetings and share those!…. dreams, dreams… if you’re interested, please get in touch!). At the moment, I feel that ours is a “fluid” style: we go where the current takes us. And at the next meeting I promise I’ll bring this up so that other group members can have a clear say in this themselves!…

Anyway, this afternoon we held our 11th meeting.  The topic I wanted to discuss was listening habits. Since the very first meeting, we have been focusing a lot on developing our listening skills – basically, trying very hard to be “good listeners” to each other while talking about things. I can hear you asking a reasonable question, “What makes a good listener?” The answers we arrived at in our different previous meetings mostly revolved around being focused on whatever the speaker is saying and asking “good”, useful questions instead of giving advice or referring to our own experiences (unless advice is explicitly requested!). At a certain point, I think I became curious to see more to it. For example, I noticed that I often fail being a good listener in my daily life outside that meeting (which is 99% of my life!))), and that the criteria, in fact, are more complex.

While doing some research online for communication skills activities for some of my higher level students, I found an interesting task, which I brought to the group meeting and which was the springboard for a deeper discussion about listening BAD – and consequently, GOOD – habits. Unfortunately, I lost the original link for this exercise, I will include it when/if I find it…!

The activity included examining 10 bad listening habits that people might be guilty of while communicating with others. Here they are, plus two more that I added to the list based on where our discussion took us:

  • interrupting often or trying to finish the other person’s sentences;
  • jumping to conclusions;
  • being parental and offering advice even when not requested;
  • making up your mind before you have all the information;
  • being a compulsive note taker;
  • not giving any response afterward, even after promising to do so;
  • being impatient;
  • losing your temper when hearing things you don’t agree with;
  • trying to change the subject to something that relates to your own experiences;
  • thinking more about your reply while the other person is speaking than what they are saying;
  • not listening to questions but rather seeing them as a personal attack;
  • not being present while listening. 

 

Guess what? We’re all guilty.

 

When I realize I wasn’t at my best as a listener in a particular situation, it’s always either too late or there are excuses (tired, busy, grumpy, not interested, “want to help”, etc). It was really great to look at this list of habits and think about myself through the lens it offers.

And I’d like to end this post abruptly with another important take-away from today’s meeting, which is also a take-away from last weekend’s Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe. Change does not have to always be the necessary outcome of reflection, well not immediate change. A better understanding of ourselves could be a more fulfilling purpose, and with a longer lasting impact, too…

 

As ever,

Thank you for reading.

 

Reflective Practice Tokyo into this academic year, Meeting #9

Thursday is the longest day. And yet, somehow today I had all the energy I needed to make it – three classes, each demanding a different focus of my awareness, different vibe to match and adjust to. Writing *semi* individual comments with feedback to each group. And then, a meeting of our Reflective Practice Tokyo group, after a three-month long break. And yet instead of being exhausted, I am typing up this post at 11 pm. Enjoy.

*****

My plan for the meeting was loosely outlined like this:

What’s important in the beginning of the term? Individual notes on pieces of paper, throw in one bag. Draw and comment, hear ideas.

Choose some, write an episode related (from recent weeks), talk to partners. LISTEN.

ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle) back to work.

As it goes, I overdid it with the plan. The first task on the list turned out to be plenty, more than enough. The group members were so amazing with their contributions, the important things so varied and yet so inter-related, the experiences and stories so vivid that we talked and talked and talked, until it was suddenly time to leave. And I would leave it at that, as I’ve done for months, but I feel this acute need to blog and I honestly don’t want to be so perfectionist about my writing and the timing and topic anymore…

So here’s the full list of important things that the six of us at this group meeting came up with. As I was typing it up, I was fascinated to see the variety of “zones” of significance for each of us, and how our current state in the similar (or completely same!) teaching context(s)  is reflected in our current priorities. I wonder if anything from that list speaks to you, too.

– balancing commitments;
– figuring out the feel/community of each of my class (what’s the culture, what’s the story);
– L1 use, comfortable atmosphere, expectations;
– thinking about how to reflect on teaching;
– getting ideas for activities;
– building routines/ learner training;
– risk, play, comfort;
– understanding the wider context of the course (not just lesson by lesson);
– rediscovering what I’m doing (a process that works, techniques vs self-conscious reflction);
– building relationships/ a connection with students;
– making students feel comfortable (in/with the course and with each other);
– see/set a goal and/or agenda for the time of the term (outside of this teaching context, for example articles, conferences, RP meetings, bigger professional goals);
– working on a strongly unified curriculum;
– getting enough sleep;
– remembering students’ names and breaking the ice;
– expectations; significance of the course beyond the classroom; philosophy;
– atmosphere.

I was quite intrigued to see that almost all of the notes were different. As I was walking home, I couldn’t help but think how important it is to listen and hear what others have to say. The thing is, if I feel strongly about a certain aspect of teaching, I feel like my vision gets blurred and many other things will be overlooked, because the focus is elsewhere. I miss out on something else that’s important. For example, I’ve recently grown very passionate about the role of relationships and connections we form in our job, as well as the crucial value and importance of a teacher (brought about and fuelled by Sarah Mercer’s work and talks, including her recent plenary at IATEFL 2017 in Glasgow). I want to talk about this, read about this, bring this view into discussions whenever there is a chance… But being so “aggressive” about one thing probably distorts my perception of the other aspects of my job…?

A Buddhist idea came to mind then, that people believe their opinions are so important and cling to them so fiercely… yet opinions change, so it really is almost a waste of mental effort. I wish I remembered this more often.

So that’s where our reflective discussion (followed by somewhat reflexive thought) is leaving me at the end of the day. This time, and almost every time – be more open. Listen and hear. Distance from my own opinion – but that’s the hardest one.

*****

Last week, as I was meeting 107 students that I am teaching this term for the first time, I said in my introduction that I like writing and one of my dreams is to write a book and/or write a column. After saying this outloud a few times to different groups, I started feeling like a hypocrite – in truth, I haven’t written in ages. There’s always a show to watch, a mandala to colour, a sketchbook page to fill, – and always a book to read. While all those have become increasingly important in my life and bring me a lot of joy, I deserted my one true passion. Writing always used to make me feel on edge, in a good sense. And caused many sleepless nights to my life, which I miss.

I know I am in a different place now. But maybe I can lower the bar and just write some.

Thanks for reading.

(and here I found the exact quote)

quote-we-cling-to-our-own-point-of-view-as-though-everything-depended-on-it-yet-our-opinions-have-no-zhuangzi-204496

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Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

I would write about why I am not blogging anymore and how guilty that makes me feel deep inside. I would write how every day I choose other, less painful and effort-demanding hobbies. I would write how I keep finding ways to escape doing writing of any sort. I would make a good case for support and understanding (“We’ve all been there, hitting that writer’s block”). I can easily picture myself writing that.

Instead, for what it’s worth, I will use this space to help me consolidate my ideas for another semester project paper. Purely practical reason, a writing I can’t delay any longer.

This past semester I had to identify “an issue” in one of my classes and keep a reflective journal registering my observations and/or any changes I brought about regarding it. I wanted to experiment with the format and try a dialogic journal. Every Friday after the lesson with the group in question I would write an entry in a Google doc. Then my colleague, co-creator of Reflective Practice Tokyo group and friend Matt Turner (known as a TEFLologist to some of you) would read my notes and leave his questions in relation to what I’d written before. Since for my article I need to make sense of the 20+ pages of that document, I will write two blog posts trying to sift through to the bottom. Mostly copy-paste from that Google doc, with a few comments from now in italics, here and there.

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

Some time in early October, the beginning of the term.

Goals for semester 2 project should be related to my teaching beliefs from the previous project (do I act on that? how?)

  • More reflective dialogue with students, among students
  • Micro-writing (for reflection and/or self/peer assessment)
  • Nurturing a community
  • Attention to individual students

Focus of my journaling will be ***** class. The class has multiple issues that make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. Group dynamics, low level, low motivation, individual students’ problematic areas, lack of active response to teacher instructions and to teacher in general, etc. It seems like a perfect chance to apply the ideas from my teaching beliefs stated above. Nurturing a community seems a priority. A community that would ensure mutual support and understanding. A community responsive to each other and to the teacher. —> I need to think of ways to reach that level through (a) attention and help to individual students; (b) dialogue with students through micro-writing? (c) class reflections. My concerns: too many concerns in that class, too many issues that I want to “fix”.

 

General issues that seemed like “issues” and prompted the journaling in the first place:

  • Slow to understand instructions for activities; sometimes have to stop Presentation stage in the middle of their “discussion” time to explain the task again or model with a student;
  • The use of Japanese in the first 2 classes was overwhelming;
  • Uneven in terms of English level;
  • In group discussions – limited interactions (very few follow-up questions, weak communication skills in general);
  • Need constant clear reminders of the goals (to use the function language, for example);
  • Need more time for practice and prep activities;
  • Don’t greet each other as enter the room, nor chat;
  • Take time to figure out tasks and even interpret discussion questions – seem lost and don’t ask me for help;
  • Don’t look at me unless I ask them to, sometimes multiple times.

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

  • Help them in discussion time as needed;
  • Short fluency (2-1.5-1 instead of 3-2-1);
  • Set simple clear goals in the beginning of class, get back to them at the end;
  • Reduce instructional TTT to a minimum – have them DO more and help in the process;
  • Increase attention to individual students;
  • Provide clear structure;
  • Work on checking understanding (communication skill we practise as part of the course);
  • Focus of the day;
  • Be firm about Japanese use;
  • Find a wake-up activity for the beginning of class (always a slow torture!);
  • One step at a time, don’t overload;
  • Slower pace, change certain tasks from regular classes.

 

A selection of my own entries, written once a week on the day of the lesson. I can be diligent as needed.

*** Lesson 4 ***

Lesson goals on the board – speak 100% English and be interactive (drew a scheme of an interactive discussion, with a mess of arrows and questions). Got too wordy/passionate explaining that. Sometimes spoke when some students were not looking at me. Felt frustrated to have to call their names and ask them to look at me. Did that A LOT in the first half of class.

For the Deep End (presentation of target language) they did not start their discussion for a minute, looked at me and did not know what to do, so I had to stop and model the discussion with Sean. Then just explained the phrases.

There were 6 students present, so group discussions consisted of three people. By the end of class the students grew more responsive to me. At the end of the lesson asked them to write on sticky notes what was easy and difficult today in class.

Easy: only two people discussion; good reactions; speak in pairs; discussion with Brian, very interesting; talk about ways to learn English; talk with classmate, use communication skills. Difficult: giving different viewpoints; giving opinions; group discussion; ask questions; group discussion.

Important note to self: remember to always ask your students.

 

*** Lesson 5, Discussion Test, October (here I introduced a structure for the entries, that I followed till the end of the project) ***

What happened (my action, their action)

I didn’t make any changes to my original lesson plan and had students have a pair discussion (5 min) before a longer group discussion 1 with the same question. As I could hear, they were doing a fine job and discussed different viewpoints. Before discussion 1, I brought their attention to the fact that they each should ask at least 5 questions (and wrote them on the board). In group discussions, they almost never used reactions and didn’t ask many questions. We did a raise of hands on the questions asked. I opted out of doing a self-check so this was it for feedback.

Right before discussion 2 I asked everyone to stand up and sit down only after giving me 3 reactions they would use in the next discussion. In both the following discussion and especially in the test everyone did great with reactions, to the point of exaggerating and causing laughter. Most students did well on the questions in the test as well. When students were discussing in Japanese which questions to choose for the test, they seemed comfortable with each other (laughing). Nobody spoke Japanese during the test.

I try to remember to speak less and clearer. But after I explained to the second test group that they can take their time to choose good questions for the test, Lisa asked Tanya in Japanese what was it they were doing (I assume).

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt we’re warming up to each other (all). Especially so when we did reactions standing. They felt more relaxed. I’m never sure if Lisa understands what I’m saying and I don’t know how to check (when it’s not the task). I feel I should start speaking activities for them as soon as possible. Cut my talking and explanation time to an absolute minimum. But then how do I connect, get through to them in that case?…on a personal level. I mostly felt good in this class and about them, too. It took them longer to do things, but they were/seemed to be less confused than usual.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

It seems like recognizing by themselves what they are doing and not doing (through, say, counting) is helpful (when they see the evidence). Probably self-check sheets are not as helpful. A short, different kind of activity to lighten up the mood is helpful for the good class atmosphere, too (like with reactions). Their recent success with not speaking Japanese transferred into today’s class, so performance maybe was so good for that reason. That makes me think that they should have a feeling of SUCCESS. And 1-2 clearly and easily achievable goals for each class. But they are not the same for all of them, these goals, so setting the goals on the board for everyone maybe is not such a good idea…

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  1. 1 goal for all, 1 personal (give out sticky notes?)
  2. Short, different kind of activity in FB time to illustrate the point and practice straight away; no ticking the boxes in self-check sheets
  3. Stats – count something (that matters at this particular lesson).

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

In other classes I start the lesson by asking students if they checked any media in the morning and what they saw there and also share my own story. In this class I decided not to do this – on second thought, I should have done that. They could benefit from starting to talk from the very beginning of class. Other than that, I did not really change my lesson plan nor did they have any struggles! They were reasonably active and engaged in discussions, didn’t use Japanese! In fact, they performed really well and followed instructions straight away for almost every task. <…> At the end of class, I asked them to write easy and difficult points about the class again. One “bad point” Lisa’s discussion group mentioned in feedback was “slow discussion.” <…> I can notice that the dynamic of a group discussion, even if it is just 3 people, is significantly different from pair work. Slower and confused, indecisive as to who speaks and when.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I never noticed or thought today that this class is “problematic.” When there was some confusion, I interfered and helped as possible. They figured out what to do quite quickly today and there was a nice feeling in the air, friendly and respectful.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

Some factors I’m thinking about:

  • Ken (the confused guy from last class) was absent;
  • I wasn’t scared of their failure (or rather did not expect it);
  • Function language was clearly presented on the board as a dialogue.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  • Activate schemata for the lesson – by asking them questions or asking them to discuss some questions related to fluency and lesson topic.
  • Include group work for stages other than group discussion (for example, Practice).
  • Structure the discussion flow more clearly, especially the beginning.
  • Write their good language on the board!! They often referred to the board today, where the key language was written.
  • Think about the “slow discussion” – together??

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

  • Before the bell I tried to talk to them (“How are you?” for the most part). Lisa said she was genki, and in general there was some positive energy. Even though it was as quiet as ever before the bell.
  • Next step was having them do the functions review. I said, “You can discuss and try to remember together” – nobody discussed, everyone worked individually.
  • One more interesting point about Lisa today: the student she’s most likely to talk  to in Japanese is Kim. Today in fluency she reminded him to speak English when he switched to Japanese. The same thing happened in discussion later.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed in today’s class, for a change. There still was the same confusion as ever, but I didn’t react so negatively to it. It didn’t stress me out. There was some energy in this class, and even though discussions were slow, I talked to them about their strong points (many questions!!!) and weird points, HONESTLY, and we could laugh together.
What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

  • Coming to class ready for “something challenging or different” changes perspective.
  • I wonder if I was more scared of them than they were of speaking English.

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

During fluency, the speakers were completely silent for a long time. Same was true for the Presentation (30 seconds in silence), so I came up to each group and asked “What’s your opinion about this topic?” <…> They started with “I don’t know” but then slowly got the energy and spoke about America and Sweden. <…> As the class progressed, they could start the activities quicker.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed for the most part. When they were silent, I just waited and realized that I didn’t feel as frustrated as before. They need more time to start. <…> Students seemed more on board with the lesson flow, even if confused at times, mostly at the beginning of class and at the beginning of tasks.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

Starting the timer does not mean start of discussion in this group. They take it as a start to organize themselves. So maybe…(1) We should clarify together what we’re going to discuss now and how we go about it (prompt them to the first few questions in discussion flow); (2) Start the timer when they actually start their discussions.

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

Target language presentation created a big confusion. One group for 1 minute looked at the handout and in Japanese said the names of the people in the picture there. I came up and drew their attention to the question to discuss and asked, “What’s your opinion, Haley?” – but nothing happened after that. Finally, Sean began talking. In the end, I didn’t use the timer in the presentation at all, but rather waited for them to get where I wanted them to get… For the practice stage, again I gave them more time than planned originally.  

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

It was a very energetic class, we felt comfortable and laughed and understood each other (even if they didn’t always understand the task!…). They listened to me more, looked at me when I was talking, engaged with me, responded when I elicited ideas from them. At the same time they were still confused in the first part of class, often confirming with each other. My current thought – what is wrong with them confirming with each other?? They are obviously more comfortable with each other than before. Isn’t it what I wanted?

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

I can’t wrap my head around the reasons for their repeated confusion over tasks in the presentation and practice stages (which, honestly, resemble one another from class to class)… Do you have any ideas?….

 

*****

That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above. What a long post!.. And no conclusions drawn… I hope you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time reading it, and I will secretly hope that some day somebody can find this post useful, whichever way that may be. If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them below.

Bottom line: I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time on the beach. On the contrary, I finally feel the burden slightly lifted. The tugboat is at work now, slowly picking up speed.

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

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#JALT2016. Notes on the highlights.

Sarah Mercer and Relational Pedagogy

  • Sarah Mercer feels passionate about the importance of the teacher. I feel passionate about it, too.  She also says our well-being comes first. I believe in this, too.
  • When we praise some students in front of the whole class, what are the implicit messages for all other students of that class?
  • Sarah shared the VIA classification of character strengths and I am most thankful to her for that. For one thing, I’m glad the classification, the list already exists. And then this:

Each one of us possess all 24 of the VIA character strengths in varying degrees making up our own unique profiles.

That means all of our students possess those strengths. That said, my most challenging class this semester, which also happens to be the main subject of my journaling, gets another angle to look at. What makes each of those 8 students special? How can I build up on their particular strengths? And then we could start feeling better about our time together in class, maybe.

  • Sarah shared some research which showed that teacher-student relationship is 11th out of 138 most influential factors for learning. Isn’t it quite important, then? Doesn’t it mean that we should invest in this relationship more – notice it, care about it, talk about it, work on it?…
  • Then there was this idea. Just as being around positive, happy people might make you feel happier and more positive, the opposite is also true. The vicious cycle of disengagement:

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And since WE are the adults in our relationships with students (well, when we are), it is up to US to take the effort to start the positive relationship. Ultimately, it is good for US as what we do, the way we do it, will travel that loop and come back amplified.

  • Offer choice no matter how limited.
  • What qualities are important for people in relationships? she asked us. The one that immediately came to my mind was reciprocity. Sarah’s list included that, and also appreciation, equality, empathy, mutual respect, trust, feeling comfortble together, and more… So logic suggests these same qualities should be nurtured between students and teachers, too, as ours is a social relationship just as important, as we’ve seen.

 

John Fanselow and iTDi

  • How many people you know and/or communicate with who are NOT teachers or former students? Talk to non-educators about what is important in their jobs and lives. Take in what they say and relate.
  • “I don’t consider what I do my work,” he said. I share the feeling.
  • Ask your students – What would be great to have in your class and in your classroom? What could make the class better? Quite possibly they have some ideas.
  • Ask them also  – What annoys you about this class? And makes it a pleasant experience?
  • Question everything – How is what you’re doing good? How is it not good? What are the alternative options? Along the same lines… I might think, “it’s a good idea!”… But what if it’s not?…
  • And finally, this: Textbooks leave out the one important skill, which is emotional development.

 

There was much more about JALT, and as usual the most important and memorable was about the people. About our emotional relationships. That’s what stays for me, conference after conference, and likely class after class for our learners, too.

 

Thinking of all the people this past weekend… we hugged, talked, laughed, took pictures, worked in pairs in workshops, shared meals and drinks, shared plans, presented together, tweeted together, learnt together, got tired, felt ignorant and/or knowledgeable together, played games like young learners do, helped each other out… Then we were sad to said goodbye. And now we’re here, at the end of this blogpost.

If you’ve never been to a conference, I hope you do go. I hope you’ll keep an open mind and welcome connections that will flow your way, and then I hope you’ll feel the way I do.

 

As ever, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

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What Clark (school) taught me.

It’s time to stop whining about not having the time to write and just make this time. It’s time to stop worrying so much about not being in good shape (was I, ever?..) for a long, thoughtful and well thought through piece of writing. It’s a perfect night for nighttime paragraph blogging, and maybe I can be back in the saddle.

*****

It’ll be a month in a few days since I’ve been working in a university in Tokyo, which, when I come to think of it, is exactly the kind of job I aspired to do in Japan in the first place. Actually, this job so far looks even better than what I could expect, but that could be too soon to say, or an entirely different post anyway. This paragraph is about what a year in a Japanese high school taught me, and here goes:

  1. I shouldn’t expect myself to miraculously connect with the students in a different country/culture simply because I seem to do so quite easily back home. It took me around four months to establish and feel their trust. In those first months I was desperate, angry, frustrated, and scared. I couldn’t adjust my teaching style so easily, I had to let go of some of my beliefs, I had to open up myself and be sincere.
  2. I realized instructions matter. I think I no longer mumble and ramble over what’s got to be done, expecting students to “be smart and get it”.
  3. I realized students do not necessarily understand whatever it is I am saying. It can be unfair to assume they should easily all do so.
  4. Working true Japanese style, namely doing morning, evening, and 3-hour monthly meetings, requires stamina annd patience. I seem to have those. But then I don’t have the energy to read the blogs, or write myself. I feel drained.
  5. No matter how wildly you may believe that TOEIC and other exam scores focus is detrimental to learning, students will stay aimed at those. They will ask for practice and exercises and more worksheets, and it’s not their fault. That’s not even what they believe to be right, but rather the system they have to get through.
  6. Working with people requires soft skills that I found out I need to have developed. It’s not an easy ride even with the best of intentions.
  7.  I possess character traits that I am ot proud of. I can get too forceful with my opinions, too direct, snappy, or even careless with my remarks. While I’m trying to hold these off and watch my act, it’s both painful and good to recognize my flaws. I think with this increased awareness, I am getting better at communicating. It is a process though, and I’m sorry for the times I might’ve hurt people on the way.
  8. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Kevin Stein a while ago, before I moved to Japan. He’d been a high school teacher for some time and I’d been a university teacher for 5 years. We discussed how different these jobs are in terms of emotional connection to students they offer. My students only saw me maximum twice a week, and most often for one semester only. No matter how much we enjoyed our classes, it seems like we all knew I’m just another teacher, one out of dozens they get to meet through their years at the uni. It seemed to have struck Kevin that the bond between me and my students, due to the very nature of a university class, was  so weak. And I could not picture what kind of other bond he meant. Now I do. I cried when my high school kids went on stage to get their graduation diplomas. I cried and felt terrible to tell other students that I’d not be teaching them anymore. Being around these kids every single day just flipped the whole teaching experience for me, turning it into one of extreme emotional vulnerabilty as it approached the imminent logical ending.
  9. Cultural differences play such a big role in a classroom, and I have to get familiar with them as much as possible before I go and teach. An example off the top of my head is silence in response to my questions, or the challenge that spelling poses.

There certainly are more, many more things that Clark (school) taught me, but this blog post is already too long. Thanks for reading and I hope to give you a reason to return here soon.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to whatever is in charge of all the good luck I’ve had for giving me a most amazing boss in my school. Were it not for Peter, his constant assistance, understanding and great attitude, I might be less positive about all the things Clark (school) taught me. Thank you, Peter, you will never be forgotten. =)

 

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New is the old forgotten. The coursebook.

Back in the sweltering (even if somewhat less so) heat of Tokyo, there is an urge to publish something. Jet lag is still on with all its effects, paired with a cold, which naturaly prevents one from typing anything new from the drafts. I know there have been blog posts, discussions, comments on the topic of coursebooks recently, so I guess coursebook is the word.
That’s why I decided to share something on the topic that I wrote 18 months ago for the TeachingEnglish Blog (original here), unedited but with my sidenotes below. Revisiting it now, when my teaching situation has changed so dramatically, looks worth a post on a lazy summer day.

*****
Coursebook is a promise.

Many times I’ve heard teachers say “Look! These new coursebooks are so good. I don’t understand why our students are not thrilled to open them, marvel at colourful pictures on these glossy pages, soak up every task and exercise! I wish I were a student myself and had to study with this textbook on my desk.”

There’s something slightly unhealthy and even obsessive about the relationships of English language teachers and bookstores. I’ve been in this team buying up armfuls of hot-off-the-press books for classroom use myself for many years. Undoubtedly, a coursebook is more than its content, clear layout, friendly guidance, and those nice on the touch pages that teachers cannot resist. A coursebook is always a promise. Every NEW(!) version of a coursebook is always a promise of something better, of something more.

A NEW Coursebook has better CD recordings.
A NEW Coursebook has authentic dialogues in many more accents.
A NEW Coursebook has a NEW e-book.
A NEW Coursebook has a DVD with a set of videos selected for each topic, and maybe even extras.
A NEW Coursebook offers a broad-minded view on many issues.
A NEW Coursebook comes together with a helpful grammar guide.
A NEW Coursebook Teacher’s Guide supplies plentiful extra ideas and photocopiable worksheets.

An app to accompany the next NEW Coursebook would be great. And surely more, much more to come to fulfill the ongoing, reassuring promise of a coursebook.

Coursebook is change.

This story sends us back to my years of working in a small private school on the outskirts of Moscow. At that time around 50 pupils constituted the whole body of those who I and my colleague, my university groupmate at that time as well, got to teach. The story in a nutshell would be us setting a goal to change over for the “foreign” coursebooks for the children in that school. I’ve recently shared in my blog the full story of this brave endeavor we took on, so I’ll just say it was successful and change that happened was greeted with support from parents and lively enthusiasm from children. At that point we managed to break away from an outdated methodology, pervasive in the textbooks, omnipresent in the libraries.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that the majority of Russian people who have ever learnt or taught English in the recent 50 years know a handful of English language coursebooks with mentions of “comrades” in the texts. These have gone through several editions in the years of the new history of our country, but even now, buying books from Russian publishing houses one can still feel a subtle scent of that unexciting for language teachers past. Books in a library in one renowned university look sad and still very much Soviet, even if they were published in the 90s or this past decade. To students, who learn English reading about the adventures of some professor Ivanov accompanied by grammar and vocabulary exercises that follow his gripping experiences, these books are no harm. Rather an explicable reason for snarky comments and general sneering. To some teachers, who have to use the afore-mentioned adventures to teach the changing and ever transforming language, these books may cause frustration. Indeed, flipping through the yellow faded pages one can see any coursebook of a modern format, design and style as a very welcome change.

No coursebook is liberation, choice and effort.

I don’t teach with a coursebook and I haven’t for quite a while. Luckily, I’m in no situation when I’m pressed to blindly follow a particular one. There’s some good sense present in the places where I teach, which I’m really thankful for. Interestingly, adult students that I get to teach exhibit a similar kind of common sense… and maybe even more than that. It won’t be an exaggeration from my part to say that not a single adult student I’ve had in my class in the recent 3 years wanted to have coursebook based classes. I don’t have to look more than 4 days back for another example of this attitude. The student I just started teaching last week in his expectations for the course ahead expressed and clearly argumented his position. He doesn’t see the use of a coursebook necessary, but at the same time he wants to be aware of the steps we’re going to take, be able to track his progress, and have a balanced language diet regarding topics and activity types. This attitude and precise understanding of goals resonate with my own view of teaching I’m most comfortable with. So, once our students are so aware of their needs, isn’t it time for teachers to be getting more flexible and let our teacher selves off the hook of that coursebook we have so comfortably got used to?

It’s quite true that I’ve developed a certain apprehension towards being imposed with a rigid system of any sort. For me coursebook-less teaching is a selfish conscious choice. It’s a challenge, it’s a continuing mental activity, it’s a practical reason to be observant, it’s an excuse to be always in search for learning opportunities. It is simply more attractive for my *active* mind. Coursebook-less teaching certainly adds hours of preparation, but in another, more enjoyable and creative way. It teaches me to react to the world around me. It forces me to be looking deeper into my students’ learning, analyze it and always be ready to adapt. Teaching from my students’ needs, negotiated, immediate and emergent, allows me to have the whole weight of responsibility for my class and share it with my students.

I don’t feel knowledgeable or in any way “expert” to give tips and advice on how, why and what you should be doing in your classroom with your students. As long as it’s clear in your own mind why you’re doing this or that, how materials you use impact learning and get reflection in the actual progress your students make, I strongly believe you know better.

*****

Obviously, context dictates its rules, which you abide by, find loopholes in, adjust, or disregard completely, vent and rebel against. With the transition I made (am making) came new reality of facing textbooks, not the first time but over again. One term of school year being over, I feel ready to share my thoughts and impressions about teaching students both with and without a prescribed coursebook.

1. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, three follow a given syllabus. The coursebooks (two levels of Go for it! and Engage) were absolutely new to me so at first I was excited to look at how they differ from the titles that are commonly used in Russia. I found them at times more ridiculous and cluttered than I’d known coursebooks to be, inconsistent, too. I can’t think of a reason why “salsa” should be given as a unit vocabulary item for music genres to modern Japanese teenagers, no offence to salsa lovers. Anyway, none of that came as a shocker. As I tried to find my way around those pages to make sure my students would learn the material in a natural and somewhat enjoyable way, I doubted my choices so many times. It suddenly got hard to link lessons and make it a flow, even though coursebooks are supposed to make it exactly easier, right? More importantly, I felt the weight of responsibility for the students to be learning (as opposed to covering) certain things within a certain number of classes, but that amount is just not enough. Some students cannot possibly cope. An unsurprising, chronic problem a teacher faces again and again. Bottomline: I was rarely sure last term my students went out of class with a solid piece of learning.

2. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, two are the courses I design myself – Culture course and Social Media course, with an emphasis on safety and privacy issues. I am lucky to be given absolute (within common sense) freedom as to which materials to use and how to structure the courses. No coursebooks are involved in those classes, and that is still both liberating AND demanding at the same time. The responsibility is there, and tripled by the fact that what students are exposed to in our very limited classtime ultimately comes down to what I, as a teacher, see right. We can approach the same material from different angles, do more in-depth work on improving our writing skills, devote time to error analysis and correction, notice weaknesses/ strengths/ points of interest and modify the rough syllabus I have prepared. All this time I should be careful we don’t overdo and overdrag it. This whole process of working together to help the course emerge is challenging but it brings so much colour to my routine. By writing lesson summaries in our Google Doc we keep track of lesson topic progression and development. I think students trust me to make the decisions that would ensure they are learning something new and relevant every class, that I will do my best to make our time meaningful. I hope.

When talking about the use or uselessness of coursebooks, I want to remember to put students themselves into the picture. That, in fact, should be true about anything we discuss that concerns teaching. I will put myself in this picture now, because I can. As a mostly unsuccessful student of Japanese, but one owning a couple of black-and-white coursebooks, I can admit that the realization that you have a book and structure *of whatever sense and quality* to guide you is reassuring. The initial interest and excitement, though, do not progress smoothly into actual learning time, for me personally. In other words, I like having a book, but learning with it is a chore I am trying to avoid.

By no means is mine an example to lean on to in making judgements and conclusions. This post is also going to lack a logical wrap-up. Thanks for reading.

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